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June 18 2011


The Passion of The Christie

While Anthony Weiner moves on (and there's irony in that statement for the less-than-steel-spined Democratic leadership) conservatives are also sporting Boehners of a sort. Here's American Thinker blogger Greg Halvorson admitting to a public climax over the object of politico-carnal affection of so many right-wing fans of, ah, shall we call it "law and order" to remain polite?

Friends, if it has been awhile since you had a Chris Christie-gasm, relax and enjoy the next minute and a half. New Jersey's governor, in response to being asked why he sends his children to private school, has again played Adult to a navel-gazing constituent; and again we're shown the results of "dumbing-down." The constituent is verbally destroyed by Mr. Christie, who pounces like a shark on a flipper-less seal. Not recommended for under-aged children constantly under threat from tyrannical whiners.

Yes, not recommended at all for under-aged children. I'm tempted to suggest Whole Lotta Love as the soundtrack for the slow-motion erotic film of desire that prompts the above-mentioned "Chris Christie-gasm" in certain political circles, mainly because of the pounding obstinacy of the riff. This is a crowd that loves a little hefty heel on the neck of the less powerful, the mere "constituent." Hmmmm, the "flipper-less seal." Quite the image.

Tearing ourselves away from that particular 25-cent GOP peep booth, doesn't it seem like Governor Christie is a little testy for someone being begged to seek the highest office in the land? A little hot under the swelteringly-tight collar for the object of mass conservative "get tough" fetishism, eh? While a sub-section of the conservative primary electorate may indeed slaver over such abhorrent behavior in the elected leader of the State of New Jersey toward a citizen asking a legitimate (and rather common) question while they feverishly click the play button on the YouTube video over and over and over and over ... [drink of refreshing cold water here] .... shouldn't it give pause to the rest of us?

The bloom is clearly off the rose that is Chris Christie, the self-proclaimed Springsteen afficionado who has injested precisely none of the Boss man's affinity for the little guy. Christie's sordid little shit fit - hautily scolding a voter whilst overseeing draconian cuts in vital services - lifted the veil on that particular heart of darkness like a lilting Clarence Clemons solo lifts the classic Sprinsteenian street sonnet (and by the by, good wishes to the Big Man in his time of trial). All is revelation in the real death waltz between flesh and fantasy.

Revealed as well by the piercing journalists at Gawker is Christie's strange notion of transparency appropriate behavior toward the press. John Cook:

The office of Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is claiming that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is a confidential adviser whose interactions with the governor should remain secret under New Jersey's executive privilege.

Last month, after New York magazine reported that Ailes met with Christie last summer and called him this year to urge him to run for president, Gawker filed a request under New Jersey's Open Records Act seeking any correspondence between the two men, as well as any records of meetings or phone calls with Ailes from Christie's schedule or call logs.

Last week we received a rather surprising response: While declining to confirm the existence of any such records, Christie's office said they "would be exempt from disclosure...based upon the executive privilege and well-settled case law." In other words, Christie's staff refused to search for any records—which, given the undisputed reports of a dinner and phone call, almost certainly exist—on the basis that Ailes is a confidential adviser whose comments should be shielded from public scrutiny.

So the Fox press lord is a "confidential adviser" to the New Jersey Governor? Well, good luck with it boys. I don't think New Jersey's buying any more. Let's go to Sue from Teaneck for the coda to this sordid little tale:

Once again, Christie is showing his bullish side. He missed the question. She did not question him about why he sent his children, but why he thought it was fair to cut funding to public schools. Christie is a bully who uses his position to do whatever he wants. I hate to yell Chris Christie, but it does not work this way. You need to treat the citizens of New Jersey with respect. You become loud and obnoxious when someone questions your decisions that you clearly know are wrong. Let us not forgot the major snowstorm this season while he was on vacation. He could not even bother to take a break from his vacation to make a statement by way of radio or television, which many, if not all governors would of done. When he came back from vacation, he did not apologize for his actions from what I know he never does. Nor did he apologize for allowing the Lieutenant Governor to take vacation at the same time.

Tags: Politics

June 13 2011


The Bell Tweets for Thee

Nobody seems to like Anthony Weiner very much, and the man has some fairly creepy uses for modern technology. But absent a felony charge, where's the justification for overturning an election and ignoring the will of the Congressman's constituents? Further, what's the hurry? If Weiner is, as reports suggest, falling apart personally in the twister wreckage trail of his digital non-sex life, then his colleagues in the Democratic leadership seem hell-bent for his total destruction.

I'm disgusted by the breathless puritanical rush of Pelosi, Kaine, Hoyer and Schultz - all Cotton Mather politics and no loyalty.

Let's put it this way: would a week or three make any difference? Can the man at least meet in person with his pregnant diplomat wife? Can he seek some calm counsel and perhaps treatment (though I'll note in passing that approximately 97.8% of American men would qualify, technically speaking, as "sick bastards" if all was made known)?

When I see a mob, some bonfires in the night, and a guy tied to a rail - I tend to distrust the mob.

Tags: Politics

June 05 2011


Let's Link to the Salt of the Earth

The annual Personal Democracy Forum unfurls its banner of Internet freedom and open digital communications this week at NYU, convening transparency geeks and "we-government" advocates from around the world for two days of wifi-powered gab and jab. I'll be there and look forward to the immersion in the networks and back-channels that powered, for example, the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

In an interesting post on his Buzz Machine blog, one of PDF's perennial voices, Jeff Jarvis, sagely scrapes the wired government question to its core: sovereignty. To what extent can governments, elected and otherwise, yield power and legal oversight - and indeed, public citizen participation itself - to the borderless, socially-networked digital polity?

As is his wont, Jeff props up an adversary to pummel in his ferocious Fight Club sparring and yeah, he's French:

The e-G8 was government’s opening volley against the internet as its agent of disruption. Oh, yes, the gathering was positioned as exactly the opposite: We come in peace, said Nicolas Sarkozy. After hearing him speak to the thousand net, corporate, technology, and government machers he’d assembled in Tuileries tents, I tweeted that I felt like a native of the Americas or Africa watching colonists’ ships sail in, thinking, this can’t end well.

I rewatched Sarkozy’s welcoming address and heard him alternately begging to be invited to the cool kids’ party–and warning them of trouble if he isn’t. “As long as the internet is part and parcel of the daily lives of our citizens, it would be a contradiction to leave government out of this massive discussion,” he said.

Then he asserted: “No one should forget that governments in our democracies are the only legitimate representatives of their citizens.” Really, Mr. President? Tell that to the people of Tahrir Square. The citizens of Egypt found their true voice apart from the government of their so-called democracy. Spring is not only overtaking the Middle East. In Spain, too, citizens are speaking for themselves, because they can. Where else will it spread?

Jeff didn't drop in the reference to the Tuileries lightly - it's pretty easy to cast a scripted old-school pol like Sarkozy as a modern Louis XVI, defensively awaiting the mobs in his garden, and he's quite right about the connected nature of the Tahrir Square crowds. But there are two aspects of  the Jarvis post that I might take issue with.

The first relates to style and culture, to the idea so resident among - well - tech machers that they're the beans on the vines of the rest of the world's population. They are not. Indeed, "tech cool" has become such a mass consumer brand proposition - the linked sans serif world of Apple and Google and Twitter - that there's no exclusivity at all, hence no "cool kids party." Take it from someone who wrote that "the big boys don't get it" in one of the early proto-blogs in 1995 that the big boys do indeed get it - indeed the big boys are it (more on this in a moment). Techno-hip is the default culture, not the province of the vanguard. Google is Wal-Mart, Apple is McDonald's, Twitter is Target and Facebook really is your father's Oldsmobile.

Yet the idea of an elite persists, even in the hallways of PDF, where organizers Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej go to long lengths to ensure a broad, diverse and grounded level of discourse. In part, it relates to the anti-government attitude so prevalent in Silicon Valley, where "self-regulation" in industry is not greeted with the peals of laughter the concept receives in the rest of the world. The great new social networks we rightly celebrate for their role in democratic movements are themselves controlled by a corporate few. For better or worse, our technology industry does think of itself as undeserving of intervention by the elected representatives of the citizenry and has often attempted to set up its own governance. So when Jarvis sets up Sarkozy as an old dude grasping for membership in the "cool kids" club, he's positioning democratic heads of of state outside the digital elite - which in fairness to Jeff, doesn't just mean the big business CEOs, venture capitalists, and A-list digerati but also the new leaders on the world stage using connected technologies to build movements.

Yet here's the rub: there should be no digital elite if this thing goes the way we'd all like it to go. Not in Egypt or Tunisia. Not in Silicon Valley. Not in Foggy Bottom. Not under house arrest in Norfolk, England. Certainly not among the anarchist hackers who attack privacy and speech. I have no interest in creating a new power structure defined by control over digital assets and audiences.

And that's my second point: I refuse to yield my rights as a citizen of the United States to any digital plebiscite, or any appointed committee of self-appointed "industry leaders" ...  or to lay down for the bullying wired brownshirts for that matter.

Sarkozy's point about democratic governments being "the only legitimate representatives of their citizens" was clumsily expressed. It implies a yolk of obedience to the state, while ignoring the vital concept of civic duty that has always been at the core of Jeffersonian democratic principles. That is to say simply: democracy is, and should be, a two-way street. Despite the failings of American government and political leaders - a constant since the founding of the Republic - that push and pull still exists, in my view. And it  defines legitimacy and undergirds sovereignty.

The rise of networks, while an annoyance to those in power at times, should actually work to legitimize elected government by connecting groups of citizens and lessening the distance between the government and the governed.

Those who believe in democracy online, and the strong worth of social media tools in both demanding representation and strengthening its every day expression, should recoil at the shenanigans of some who posture to attack the legitimacy of the elected - whether it's the Tea Party, the hard-core followers of WikiLeaks, or the digitial mobs who threaten cyber-death to any who disagree with their ever-changing demands and manifestos.

The argument that the Internet comprises a new borderless polity is strong one. Jeff Jarvis argues: "many of us — net people — have a new loyalty that inevitably undercuts old, national authority." Yet in that brave new world, where do I vote? Whom can I impeach? And where are my rights when the principles of Jefferson and the ideals of Emerson lay trampled in the digital gutter in a virtual world where coding might equals moral right?

And yet we cannot look away from the power of self organization and activism - of new alliances - partially empowered by digital networking tools. Sociologist blogger Zeynep Tufekci, who was on  PDF's WikiLeaks panel with me last December, has a great post up on the mood in post-Mubarek Egypt, and she goes inside the organizing structure - only to immediately encounter that tension between radical change powered by self organization ... and self determination powered by the the institutions of democracy. This snippet captures the essential friction of transition:

The organizers were identified with orange badges and took turns manning (and womanning as females were searched by women volunteers) the many entrances. At my last entrance, the polite young woman doing the search apologized to me, as she seemed to do to everyone she had to search, even as she did a fairly good job of looking through my small purse. Unlike regular police, she was not socialized into the idea that there is nothing disturbing about treating people as if they may do something wrong before they’ve done anything wrong. She did her job diligently, knowing it needed to be done, but also clearly uncomfortable with her role as treating people as presumed troublemakers. It was as if she symbolized the tense transition facing the idealist street activists of Cairo who are now struggling with questions of governance, of organization, how to contest elections and how to deal with the myriad of powerful forces from the Army to others.

That "tense transition" is what I'm hoping to hear more about at NYU this week. In a post previewing PDF, Micah Sifry wrote that he was looking forward to hearing Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia of Nawaat.org  and Global Voices - and points to his long essay on digital activism in the Arab world. The essay is startling, but perhaps it shouldn't be. In arguing that nascent democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa need, more than anything else, their independence from the influence of western governments and NGOs, Ben Gharbia is mirroring an American ideal, even while opposing American influence - and his goal is to "prevent digital activism in the Arab world from losing its most genuine and cherished characteristic which is its autonomy."

While it may look easy to grasp, digital activism is a complex multi-faceted movement, varies strongly from one country to another, and changes over the course of time. It’s always evolving by adopting new tools and tactics and through a constant adjustment of its strategies of resistance and actions.


Caught in the middle between authoritarian regimes aggressively engaged in repression, Internet filtering and monitoring on the one side, and growing attention from Western public agencies and associated NGOs on the other, digital activists and online free speech advocates in the Arab world are going through one of the most challenging phases of their short history that could alter their ecosystem dramatically.

That challenge is theirs, as it should be. There is no "8th continent" or new government of the Internet. There are lands and there are peoples and there are myriad interlocked cultures. If you would not challenge the hard-won rights and sovereignty of a Northern African democratic movement in its infancy, please don't challenge mine. After all, thanks to the ever-growing growing network of networks, my democracy grows more responsive and transparent daily....doesn't it?

May 27 2011


Homeland Insecurity

Of the many wrong turns this country has taken since the suicide attacks of 2001,  the use of a single word may seem small change to quibble over. Yet a decade on, and deep into a Democratic administration that has continued a global "war on terror" and the erosion of civil liberties, one word still stings and sticks like a cracked fingernail.

The word is "homeland."

I've never thought of my native country as a homeland. We are far from the homogenous society such a word connotes; indeed, homogeneity is deeply anti-American because the United States has always been a destination. Diversity is the national currency, though many don't either realize it or admit it. At our best, we are mobile and lithe - open to ideas and culture and language and change. "Homeland security" is - to my ear - something of an explicit abandonment of the outward-facing view, of an open-sourced, open-handed America. In 20th century terms, it smacks of Lindbergh and Father Coughlin and darker European movements tied to land and blood. In 21st century terms, it reeks of fear, of a national nesting instinct that stands in opposition to confidence in our system of justice. Using "homeland" for a Federal security agency was the involuntary muscle spasm that signals a deeper sickness within.

For years, I hated the word on the lips of the Bush Administration officials who instituted its use. But it sounds just as strange from the mouths of Democrats; witness Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was attacking radical libertarian Republican Rand Paul to holding up the vote extending the Patriot Act (via Glenn Greenwald):

"If the senator from Kentucky refuses to relent," Reid said earlier Wednesday, "that would increase the risk of a retaliatory terrorist strike against the homeland and hamper our ability to deal a truly fatal blow to al-Qaida."

As Greenwald has pointed out repeatedly, this was simple fear-mongering under Republicans, and it's fear-mongering under Democrats. And "homeland" is just the right word for jacking up security spending - it's le mot juste for the vast anti-terrorism system that has grown up in the last ten years.

Terrorism succeeds only by inducing an instinctive reflex of fear. "Homeland" falsely suggests that a  brutal but relatively small band of Islamic desperadoes constitute an existential threat to the republic. It goes the bland but accurate "National" several editorializing steps further. And it supports more full body scans, more extraordinary rendition, more wiretaps, more extra-judicial anti-terrorism activities against American citizens.

As President Obama begins to campaign for the second term he clearly deserves, my hope is that he'll hew more to the themes and promises of his first campaign - and begin to move away from the fear-driven policy of the last decade. President of the Homeland is a title he (and we) should explicitly reject. As Kevin Gosztola argued back in 2009:

If Obama really thinks “we cannot keep the country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values,” we the people will have to lead the way in enlisting these values.

May 02 2011


About Last Night

We were watching The Killing, AMC's taut Seattle murder procedural drama, when we noticed the tweets about an unscheduled Sunday night statement from President Obama. National security, it seemed. No immediate leaks to the dozens of reporters and bloggers speculating on what the news might mean. So we flipped on the Mets game, which was knotted at one in Philadelphia. But my mind was already turning back to the smoke and those people covered with ash walking just below on the Manhattan streets. Sometimes the nervous system knows before the intellect.

Then Twitter spoke up. The lid was lifted. Bin Laden was indeed dead and gone, killed in a raid by American special forces. For some reason, I thought of the fighter jets and their contrails over New York in that impossibly blue sky. Those pilots may all be retired from the military for all I know. I'm a lot older, that's for certain. There has been loss. And I'm aware, day by the day, the much of this society has lost its way because of Osama bin Laden's spectacular plot to attack the United States.

My kids were in grade school single digits; one was still a toddler on that day when they waited for me to come home. Last night, they remembered the announcements at school and how they learned about the attacks. Last week, I was telling an audience of corporate grantmakers that much of the skepticism of America's youngest generation was forged in the heat of 9/11 and in the wars that followed. So it was not surprising to see the young crowds outside the White House or down at what used to be Ground Zero - this is a major event for that generation.

Like many, I've tired of the 9/11 spectacle and those who used it, and leverage its ghostly specters still. I dislike how our country has changed and what it means to some of our essential freedoms. But Goddamn it I was glad they killed that murdering bastard. Last night, I went to bed thankful for the President's word. Mainly for New York. Mainly for my home.

UPDATE: Other blogger pals o' mine weigh in, and I'm being selective toward the long-timers because of my (possibly missplaced) belief that so much of the early blogging came from the very public nature of 9/11 and our need to talk about it.

Jim Wolcott: "It's taken so long for his death to come (although it's been rumored for years, that he was being used as a useful ghost to keep the specter of terrorism alive) that I didn't think I'd be tearful when word finally came, that his death would be a long overdue postscript to a terrible decade, but I was wrong. I was telling someone this weekend that those who moved to NY in 2004 or 2005 have no idea of what it was like in the first few years after 9/11, the shadow it cast in the back of everyone's mind; like the shadow thrown by John Lennon's murder, but more cataclysmic in its scale of shock and sorrow."

Lance Mannion: "In the grand scheme of things, Bin Laden is more responsible than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama for the wars and the deaths.  He was proud of this.  He wanted it.  It’s what he planned for.  He wanted the bodies piled up in the streets.  Not just American bodies.  It’s even a question as to how much he really cared about killing Americans.  We were a means to an end.  He wanted Muslim bodies in the streets all over the Mideast.  He wanted to see his world burn. If ours went up in flames along with it, all the better."

April 11 2011


Come Gather 'Round People

Once upon a time, Bob Dylan stood dead center on a stage facing citizens of an oppressive regime that denies free speech and spat these lines viciously to the crowd:

But something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

If you read Maureen Dowd's idiotic, park-your-keister-in-a-DC-coffeeshop and hit the Google column in The Times, you're probably nodding and thinking wistfully of 1963 when young Bobby Zimmerman out of Minnesota's Iron Range actually stood for challenging authority and telling stories of truth and justice. Dylan, wrote the NYT's resident right-wing sex columnist, had sold out in China - indeed, was a sell-out for most of his career.

But you'd be wrong. Dylan, in fact, sung those lyrics front and center on the stage in the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium last week. He also sang these:

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden

With a little reporting, James Fallows skillfully destroys the "Dylan Sells Out" charges Dowd so sloppily left at Dylan's feet. Here's a bit:

Jeremiah Jenne, a Chinese-speaker and long-time resident of Beijing who covered the actual "Jasmine Protests" in Beijing in a stint as Guest Blogger here, says in his Jottings from the Granite Studio that "there has been a rash of increasingly unrealistic drivel [about Dylan] from the foreign press, culminating yesterday in a truly moronic piece by Maureen Dowd." Jenne pointed out that one of the numbers Dylan sang in Beijing, "a corrosive version of All Along the Watchtower, ain't exactly bubble gum pop.

Dylan's not perfect, and nor has he ever been the idol of folkie protest that froze time in the last month's of the Kennedy Administration. The troubadour has made a habit of shedding skins. Yet anyone with a little knowledge of the man's actual career and writing knows he's as far from a sell-out as a major entertainment figure has been in the last fifty years. He plays it his way. The incisive BooMan finds the coda: "Dylan doesn't have to sing songs of rebellion to be subversive. His entire existence is subversive. And Dowd doesn't understand any of it."

But let's get some more from the poet, who opened his Communist-approved set in China with his Christian era classic Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, from Slow Train Coming - goes like this:

So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can't keep track of it no more

Tags: Music

April 01 2011


Mad Men and Women

Gop field mad men
For fans of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, on temporary hiatus due to rancorous contractual disputes and John Slattery's commitment to embarrassing "Smarter Than Luxury" Lincoln commercials, we offer a brilliant replacement series, gift-wrapped for summer and fall. Bit of a reality show, though that's stretching a point given the depth of the contestants' narcotic haze, which makes a Don Draper bender in the swingin' 60s West Village seem like a milk and cookies swing through Romper Room.

Yes, it's American Idyll - otherwise known as the the Republican primary field - which is shaping up (slowly and reluctantly) as the feel-good hit of the year. Friends, it appears that Bachmann Gingrich Trump will be replacing Sterling Cooper Draper and oh, the hi-jinks we can look forward to. Field trips to see the famous Minute Men monument on Concord, New Hamphire. The opening of the hot new Donald Trump golf project, Birther Links, designed by Tom Fazio. The Gingrich PSA on nursing a spouse through cancer and impeachment. Rand Paul. 'Nuff said. (Kinduva libertarian Pete Campbell). The shop-worn socialist healthcare guy, whassiname, big Mormon fella. Bass-playin' Bible-thumpin' Kenyan-confusin' Mike Huckabee. And Haley Barbour, Citizens' Committee man and proud hi-ball tossing lobbyist. All sizes and flavors of crazy - and that's without Sarah Palin. (We're giving Tim Pawlenty a pass, but we're guessing his new-found love for the Tea Party offers all sorts of plotlines).

Outside of baseball (and let's face it, the Mets will done by June) and the new Bear Grylls episodes, what else offers better pure, sit on your couch in wonderment entertainment than GOP2012? Sure I miss Peggy, but this one's gonna do big numbers. Too bad the big red carpet premiere's been postponed till September.

Tags: Television

March 19 2011


The WikiLeaks War


The United States and Great Britain have fired 110 cruise missiles and French jets have destroyed four tanks today belonging to the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, and thus the lightning-flash pivot from Western concerned non-intervention (and love for the status quo) to hellbent-for-leather regime change is complete in this season of revolt in the super-charged Arab world.

Call it the first WikiLeaks War.

Certainly all who credited the anarchist libertarian "transparency" organization with throwing the initial stones of American diplomatic intelligence judgments into the calm pool of Tunisian domestic waters must certainly embrace this new armed coalition in Libya as a product - at least in part - of those actions.

As Julian Assange is proud to proclaim, American revelations about the Tunisian regime fueled the fire in those streets, which fed Egypt and Tahrir Square, which also stoked the challenges to power in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. Leaked secret information from the American diplomatic point of view, argued the WikiLeaks founder, gave opposition leaders "the confidence that they needed to attack the ruling political elite."

That confidence, if Assange is right, led Gadaffi's regime to teeter under the weight of mass protest. That brought the vicious military crackdown, which led - quickly and rather surprisingly - to the ad hoc American-European-Arab League partnership to squash Gadaffi once and for all. Let's face the truth: this is a regime change war, not a minor no-fly mission. Once the attack is launched, Gadaffi has to go;  indeed the French have already recognized the Libyan opposition coalition.

Understandably, this development blows the minds of liberals who have stoically supported WikiLeaks as an innovative new international information movement that would almost certainly deflate the interventionist and imperialist tendencies of the big western powers. Watching Twitter over the last 24 hours imparted the digital equivalent of progressive whiplash, as lefty voices who've been enthralled by the Middle East protests (and fully in favor of giving WikiLeaks much of the credit) either backpedaled away from intervention or went silent. Yet the smartest pro-transparency analysts have always realized that the revelations the U.S. cables represented would almost certainly lead to unforeseen consequences, if not armed conflict.

Micah Sifry has written a n incisive new book-length essay on public transparency that essentially uses the WikiLeaks saga as a news peg to discuss many of the opportunities and challenges inherent in sharing more government data, and opening decision-making. WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency attaches a significant democratic upside to transparency, and I agree with that assessment - yet it does recognize the challenges as well:

WikiLeaks, and other entities inspired by it that are beginning to spread, present the United States with an especially difficult version of the information doer problem, because the discover of new facts may now occur at any time.

This is an incredibly important concept that, quite frankly, goes well beyond WikiLeaks the organization (which I believe is doomed by virtue of its evident and fatal founders syndrome). In the unfolding Libyan crisis, it's clear that the U.S. government was not appreciably ahead of the curve in gathering actionable information compared to the entirely public network of citizen journalism and socially networked news. NPR journalist Andy Carvin is, in my view, the leading American journalist plumbing the flow of information from the field in the Middle East in North Africa. Following Andy means staying plugged in to real stories and real people.

The traditional back-channel of intelligence from regions of conflict and revolution moved to the front; anyone who was interested could plug into a firehose of news, videos, pictures, and sketchy reports from the Libyan protests and later, the fighting front.

In his fascinating "instant book" on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, Nation blogger Greg Mitchell - who has live-blogged all things WL since before the flood and can fairly be described as favorably disposed towards the leaks - cannily airs out an Assange quote that never got much attention after the WikiLeaks founder's stated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan: "People have said that I am anti-war: for the record I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about these wars."

And as wars go, this was relatively transparent decision-making by the Obama Administration, even if it did not ask Congress for permission to take military action. Consider the speed: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libyan opposition leaders in Cairo on Thursday. She quickly changed her mind on intervention and worked along with Senator John Kerry, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and foreign policy adviser Samantha Power to push the Administration toward joining a coalition against Gadaffi.

Far from the usual palace intrigue, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice were unusually open and up front in speaking of their policy aims, and the President made his decision quickly. There's no Bob Woodward book to be written; almost everything's already on the record. Indeed, I was thinking of indepenent diplomat Carne Ross's words from just two months ago: "The world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and élitism as their solution, but instead the opposite."

Of course, I worry quite a bit about a third U.S. war, about the long-term success of regime change in Libya, and what we've bitten off in attacking Gadaffi on behalf of his opposition. But I'm not worried about whether I know enough about what's going on. Heck, I've got Twitter. The U.S. contribution to the coalition - primarily naval in the early stages - has been quickly divulged. As Peter Daou just tweeted:

Ah, the age of social media, where even US military strikes get their own hashtag: #OperationOdysseyDawn

And then there was Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander and Commander, US European Command, who took a moment on the bridge to Tweet this message:

Operations over #Libya by France, UK, US -- other European nations in the mix -- busy!

Busy indeed, and Julian Assange might well approve. Certainly, it's in contrast to U.S. military action in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet I also think it's important to recognize the external forces at work in prompting action against Libya, a target that - let's face it - conveniently has oil reserves and a madman at the top, making the interventionist decision a helluva lot easier than, say, Bahrain.

But let's not forget the authentic voices of the opposition, which seem to have had such an effect on Secretary Clinton. This should surprise no one. For a massive government bureaucracy, the State Department is relatively plugged into the social media firehose and has encouraged the use of online tools and techniques in democracy movements.The Libyan crisis provides an almost perfect opportunity to meld social media organizing with limited superpower intervention - it's this State Department's moment.

Among the voices the U.S. and other listened to was that of  Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, a citizen journalist whose video reports from Benghazi had become central documents to understanding the Libyan opposition. From Andy Carvin's Twitter stream today, we learned that Nabbous had been shot and killed by a sniper as he filmed a report. Here's a storyful post on his life and death. And here's his final video report - the last of his all-too-short life and career as a brave journalist and activist, but among the earliest of what I think can fairly be called the first Wikileaks War:

Watch live streaming video from libya17feb at livestream.com

March 13 2011


Counterproductive and Stupid

"What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."
- P.J. Crowley

To pure open government advocates and many anti-war progressives, Private Bradley Manning is a prisoner of conscience, held without trial in solitary confinement in the Quantico brig for allegedly providing a vast store of secret U.S. government documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. To the right (and much of the military), he's a traitor, pure and simple - the supplier of secrets to American enemies all too happy to use them against the nation.

I think Manning was legitimately sickened by what he saw in America's endless, grinding war policy, but wildly misguided in his methods. The massive leak of secret gigabytes wasn't a whistleblower's case against the state's wrong-doing - an argument against crime or policy; it was vast spray-painted vandalism, devoid of a message or a real goal. And Manning's alleged choice of a partner could not have been more disastrous for the 23-year-old Army private. Assange has turned a promising new form of journalism and distribution that may have eventually promoted more open government into a widely-loathed platform of preening, anarchistic nonsense, tarred by anti-Semitism, sex abuse charges, and an increasingly insular and paranoid cult of personality. While the brave-but-misguided Manning wastes away in the brig, the posing WikiLeaks czar reworks images of himself as Che Guevara into T-shirts for sale.

This does not excuse the American government, nor its Democratic President, from responsibility in the Manning case. Reading the accounts of Manning's confinement leaves little doubt that he is the target of some rather special incarceration tactics designed to break him down emotionally, and cause him to assist the Obama Administration in its apparently still-active movement toward prosecuting WikiLeaks. Both the treatment of Manning and the pursuit of Federal charges against WikiLeaks and Assange are grave political mistakes - and the former is a serious ethical failing.

The treatment of Private Manning is well-documented. He is confined to his spartan cell 23 hours each day. He is not allowed to exercise. His contacts with the outside world are severely limited. Much of his treatment is attributed to suicide prevention, yet a United Nations anti-torture investigator has submitted an inquiry about Manning to the  State Department, as did Amnesty International to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Last week, Manning's lawyer released a letter from the prisoner in which he describes how he has been "left to languish under the unduly harsh conditions of max [security] custody" ever since he was brought from Kuwait to Virginia in July last year. From The Guardian's coverage:

The most graphic passage of the letter is Manning's description of how he was placed on suicide watch for three days from 18 January. "I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness."

Manning writes that he believes the suicide watch was imposed not because he was a danger to himself but as retribution for a protest about his treatment held outside Quantico the day before. Immediately before the suicide watch started, he said guards verbally harassed him, taunting him with conflicting orders.

When he was told he was being put on suicide watch, he writes, "I became upset. Out of frustration, I clenched my hair with my fingers and yelled: 'Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong.'"

He also describes the experience of being stripped naked at night and made to stand for parade in the nude, a condition that continues to this day. "The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."

Too often since 2001, our government had made decisions in which security transcends our humanity. These decisions are, in effect, our decisions - from the disastrous and immoral Iraq invasion to the abandonment of our deeply-held judicial principles at Guantanamo Bay. I am generally a defender of President Obama and - in the main - fairly positive about his tenure in office thus far. Hell, I've been flayed as an abject apologist by lefty friends. I admire the President. But in no area am I more disappointed with the candidate I voted for rather proudly in 2008 than in the realm of civil liberties. I thought Barack Obama would lift the moral fog of the 9/11's fear-tinged national security hangover. He has not yet chosen to do so, preserving - and in some cases, extending - the security-driven abuses of the Bush era, punishing whistleblowers, and simply ignoring several of his most prominent campaign promises.

Yesterday, the White House fired State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley for saying out loud at an MIT forum on Friday what most on the diplomacy side of the Federal government's foreign policy apparatus believe: that the treatment of Bradley Manning is "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." It's not as if Crowley, an Air Force veteran, is a huge fan of Manning's actions or WikiLeaks; indeed he also told the panel "nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place," and "there is sometimes a need for secrets ... for diplomatic progress to be made."

Yet Crowley's remarks - ironically transmitted by a blogger in these more open days of government communications - prompted a question about Manning's treatment at the President's press conference. As CNN's Ed Henry reported, "Sources close to the matter said the resignation, first reported by CNN, came under pressure from the White House, where officials were furious about his suggestion that the Obama administration is mistreating Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico."

 In a single ill-timed move, President Obama has squelched even polite, mild public dissent in his Administration, appearing both in thrall of the security hawks who have governed too much of U.S. policy since 2001 and thin-skinned about being asked a semi-tough question at a press briefing.

That the White House would make such a move on the very eve of Secretary of State Hillary's Clinton's crucial trip to the Middle East to meet with transitional leadership in Egypt and Tunisia, and with the Libyan revolutionaries, frankly reveals just how much stock the President himself puts in message cohesion on his Bush era national security stance.

John Cole, not exactly a political enemy of the President's, may have put it most colorfully (and correctly):

You don’t screw with the national security state. They do what they want, and if you speak up, you just gotta go. So much for that team of rivals shit.

And if you are wondering why we will stay in Afghanistan for as long as Obama is President, wonder no more. The mildest disagreement with the national security state and the war pig is cause for immediate dismissal.

I am no fan of WikiLeaks and its naked political ambition, but it's impossible to justify the Obama Administration's reaction to what is a minor threat and a major opportunity to pivot U.S. policy and practice on a new axis and seize the high ground. The firing of P.J. Crowley will, I think, have repercussions well beyond a single spokesperson's tenure. And Bradley Manning just became a prisoner of conscience for many more Americans - including me.

February 25 2011


Facebook, Egypt and The Social Network

On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network will be one of the two or three betting favorites for the year's best picture at the annual Academy Awards extravaganza in Hollywood. The film tells the (largely fictionalized) early story of Facebook, wrapped in the coming-of-age tale of founder Mark Zuckerberg and the compromises he chose to make on the road to creating what is fast becoming the privately-owned dial tone of social media. Yet that Graduate-meets-Silicon Valley story, fascinating as it is, may only be a prequel to a more significant epic - the role of Facebook in worldwide freedom movements and the real coming-of-age story that represents for our networked world.

I don't know if Sorkin plans a sequel, but if not surely the last three months in Facebook's brief history qualifies for a sweeping cinematic treatment. Pity David Lean no longer walks this mortal coil, because the follow-up would clearly channel Lawrence of Arabia more than The West Wing. If Facebook is to help lead in the modern world, and to move beyond its mere multi-billion-dollar valuation to grasp the social value Zuckerberg is always talking about, the lessons of Egypt and the revolts roiling the wider Arab world must not go unlearned.

My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read post up at techPresident that serves as a sort of challenge for Facebook and he nimbly puts his finger on the nub of that challenge: the investors' imperative to continue to grow the vast online service and reap ever greater revenue and profit rewards versus the more idealistic goal of building a vital social graph to encourages (and indeed, helps to guarantee) human freedoms, particuarly free speech. "While Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency," writes Sifry, "it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values."

This is a struggle that all nonprofits and NGOs - and the less formal movements beyond - must consider before investing their time, their networks, and their intellectual capital with Facebook and other social networks. While I cannot help to advise clients to "go to where to the people are" and therefore recommend a strong Facebook presence, I'm conscious of the fact that Facebook is a private enterprise, currently wired to make money and reward shareholders; and I think the ownership of data and relationships - the DNA of the social graph - is dangerously tilted towards ever-larger centrally-controlled private concerns that (despite great intentions) are non-democratic.

Sifry cites the example of the disappearance from the Facebook page of Cairo University professor Dr. Rasha Abdullah of a video showing the murder of an Egyptian protester by security forces. It mirrored Facebook's takedown of Wael Ghonim's iconic "We Are All Khalid Said" page last November - the page eventually credited with powering the January 25th revolt. "Young people using the site as a "democratic republic" need to know that their rights will be protected--including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations." And indeed, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio's article in the Daily Beast shows how Facebook's "policy" toward human rights campaigns and democratic organizers is so much chewing gum and bailing wire; it took the the behind-the-scenes intervention of a Facebook executive in Europe to keep Egypt's most important young activist on the site - and Ghonim has been effusive in his praise of Facebook as a brilliant organizing tool for young Egyptians. Giglio's piece showed the ambivalence at the company.

“Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”
The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”

It's understandable that Zuckerberg and Facebook face competing forces, and Zuckerberg has favored a more libertarian view towards his platform (he once griped about having to take down the pages of Holocaust deniers).

Yet clinging to an anodyne Terms of Service to bounce anything controversial seems - I dunno - so damned last year to me. The world is changing rapidly, and open social communications are leading the way, at least in part.

Those of us who reject so-called "hacktivism" displays of preening "civil disobedience" - you cannot legitimately support free speech by shutting down speech on the web by DDos attack, however much you disagree - are intellectually cornered, in a way. We need to root for the big semi-open platforms - Facebook, Google, Twitter - while wearing down the finish on our worry beads over their monied, private control. Yet it's almost as if, in the argument over social media and its role in revolution and resistance, Facebook argues against itself. Witness the lame spokesman speak evident in the company's comment for a recent New York Times article on its reluctant role in Egypt:

“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”

Who wrote that, Malcolm Gladwell?

Compare that corpspeak mess to the enthusiasm of Wael Ghonim. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He then went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Clearly, Ghonim (who works for arch-competitor Google, ironically) was channeling the Mark Zuckerberg who, upon hitting 200 million registered users, placed Facebook at the center of social change: "Creating channels between people who want to work together toward change has always been one of the ways that social movements push the world forward and make it better."

[As an aside, I'm very much looking toward some deeper reporting and analysis on the role of networked activism, social media, citizen journalism, and street-level organizing in the Egyptian revolution. Luckily, my friend Al Giordano and his compadres from the Authentic Journalism school - which I wholeheartedly support - are headed to the Middle East to find out. In an excellent post this week, Giordano wrote: "The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported."]

The choices Zuckerberg and Facebook make now really do matter for the networked future. Last week, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote a well-considered assessment for Foreign Policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second major address on Internet freedom:

Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights. Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements.
Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live. It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.

Secretary Clinton's speech was the most important a major American political figure has ever made on the subject of an open Internet and a more networked government. And it signaled a major step in the movement to open up governments - even superpowers - t0 the increased scrutiny and a participation of the citizenry.

Yet I thought the weakest part centered on private companies and their role in freedom movements, online and off - and the power relationship they have with data. Media technology is one of the strongest financial and cultural assets the U.S. has, and it's clearly thought of as a vital national asset by the Obama Administration; Clinton's speech (and ongoing State Department collaboration with social media companies) and President Obama's well-publicized dinner with a gaggle of Silicon Valley machers were clear signals to this effect. So I guess it was understandable that Clinton didn't push the private data control aspect too hard.

In any event, I'm fairly certain we cannot rely on government to guarantee a Facebook that's as socially aware - as socially vibrant - as it is socially wired. No, that'll take the crowd itself.

More than its investment bankers, Facebook listens to its network and adjusts its practices accordingly. Sure, the company has long been guilty of "launch, fail, react" cycles - but it has been responsive to its users. There have been many uprisings in Facebook's brief history, and to Zuckerberg's credit, he's never played the Hosni Mubarek role.

Who knows if The Social Network's tale of youth and founding moments will grab the Oscar on Sunday, and in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and Iran, I doubt if anyone cares. Sorkin's film had a clever marketing tagline: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Nor do you create real social change without making the tough choices.

History is written too quickly for the filmmakers in 2011 - and Facebook's own Tahrir Square is abuzz with change, hope, and major challenge to Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the social web.

[Cross-posted at CauseWired]

February 14 2011


Catcher's Card X Meets Lineout Max

Back in the gauzy wilds of the early 1980s in the neighorhood of Morningside Heights, four callow underclassmen decided the day's lectures held no interest and so piled into a brown sedan and rode to Glen Head, Long Island. Their mission was a simple one: arrive at the office of the Strat-O-Matic Game Company as the cards for the previous year's Major League Baseball season were released. The directions weren't the greatest, delivered as they were in those days not by handy smart phone or GPS unit but by a gruff voice at the end of pay phone line. The trip meandered along the North Shore. Yet the transaction eventually took place, and the four young men spend the ride back poring through the coded performance charts on a tall stack of white index-sized cards. The evening yielded yet another marathon session of play, the latest of many on that particular campus.

Strat-O-Matic turns 50 this week (a year before I do) and it's worthwhile to pause and recall all that wonderfully wasted time rooting for dice rolls and split card results. The Times had a piece this weekend on the anniversay and the Strat-O phenomenon, which is stubbornly anti-technology despite an online game that's a poor cousin to the original; heck, the biggest innovation in the company's history was the replacement of split cards number 1 to 20 with "the unique 20-sided die." That was nearly 30 years ago. The company's 75-year-old founder, Hal Richman, who may well have been the voice on the phone, told the Times that “Strat-O-Matic isn’t a religious experience for these people, but it does have tremendous meaning in their lives.”

I remember when Lenny Dykstra won a game with a homerun for the Mets back in 1986 and told sportswriters: "the last time I did that was Strat-O-Matic!" There's an alterative reality to the game that comes closer to the rhythm of baseball than any of the uber-realistic video titles. And the players felt that, as the celebration this weekend clearly showed.

Among the 600 aficionados was the former major league center fielder Doug Glanville, who spoke at the event.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you roll the dice on your own cards,” Glanville told the crowd.

He said that one year, he complained to Richman when his defensive rating dropped. Now an analyst for ESPN, Glanville said he sometimes studied players’ cards like scouting reports.

“I just saw an Ian Kinsler card today and saw he was an ‘A’ bunter,” he said. “I didn’t realize he was that good.”

Strat-O-Matic, in which rolls of the dice correspond to results on cards that mirror players’ real-life statistics, has survived in an age of high-tech video games.

“Like Othello or chess, you can learn the game swiftly, but you’ll never tire of the strategies,” said Glenn Guzzo, a former newspaper editor and the author of “Strat-O-Matic Fanatics,” who has been playing since he asked his mother for a set for his 12th birthday in 1963.

He said the game’s combination of playability (it can be completed in a half-hour) and realism were essential to its longevity. “There are also an infinite number of ways to keep your imagination fertile,” he added.

I haven't played Strat-O-Matic in a while, but I find myself on Long Island quite a bit for business these days. Maybe I should light out for Glen Head one early spring morning.

Tags: Baseball

February 03 2011


From Cairo to Algiers

Instant movies on Netflix, streamed through my son's hand-me-down xBox (he's traded up) brought me to the teeming streets of a North African revolt a few weeks ago, in my insanely prescient choice of The Battle of Algiers for a night of solo viewing on my nifty home office screen while the family chose alternate entertainment downstairs. In truth, I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's masterwork as a follow-up to a semi-recent jag through Camus, particularly The Plague and its terrifying social descent into ever-narrowing tribal circles of survival and sacrifice in the walled Alergian city of Oran.

The Battle of Algiers, with its verite style, incredible locations, and cast of mostly non-actors felt like the perfect documentary, the inside story of revolution and vicious urban guerilla warfare that even Al Jazeera couldn't possibly tell. It's rightly famous for its clear-eyed depiction of violence, and for its uncondescending portrayal of the Algerian revolutionaries. There is a "right" side in Pontecorvo's film, and the director's heart lies with a poor, debased majority under the French colonial heel - yet there is no sentimentality about the killing on either side or the brutal cycle of terrorism and reprisal; indeed the film nearly succeeds in making the viewer understand the methods of torture employed by the infamous French paratroopers brought in to quell the revolt. The lone professional among the cast was actor Jean Martin, who played a composite character, Col. Mathieu, the French commander and a veteran of both Indochina and the Resistance. He's decisive, cold, and the picture of authority and colonial arrogance - yet he seems to sympathize with the sheer bravery of the men and women he must hunt down and kill.

Made in 1966, after the Algierians won their independence, the film depicts the period before 1960, when the French succeeded at least partly in putting the rebellion down. Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a National Liberation Front commander who fought the French, it remains a crucial cultural document both in the history of North Africa and in guerilla struggles against oppression. As the Self-Style Siren noted a few years ago, The Battle of Algiers was reportedly screened by Bush Administration planners before the Iraq invasion: "Did the Defense guys really watch the full two hours of French forces torturing, interrogating, cracking down, going house-to-house and throwing their full military might at Algiers? I do hate to post spoilers, but I think Pontecorvo's film should be screened again for Mr. Cheney and the Pentagon, with special attention to the part near the end."

Watching the rebels in Egypt this week, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Battle of Algiers and its whitewashed back alleys; it's not a colonial struggle, yet it clearly involves large numbers of frustrated, under-employed, economically-depressed young people willing to die in a longshot throw of the dice for political freedom. And as Mubarak's police mounted their own violent counter-demonstrations today, I remembered the scenes in Pontecorvo's film of huge crowds overwhelming armored cars and tanks, swarming and disarming troops, and marching on government buildings. Like Mubarak, Col. Mathieu also wondered about the mob and the majority, and the knife's edge between a country's desire for order and an insurgency's desire for freedom.

"There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah," Col. Mathieu told the French journalists gathered in his office. "Are they all against us? We know they're not. In reality, it's only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it."

Mubarak, an important ally of the United States until approximately Sunday at 9 am Eastern time, may be thinking the same thing.

Here's the trailer for The Battle of Algiers - if you need a break from the live images on Al Jazeera, this is the clear choice. 

February 01 2011


The Revolution Will be Televised


You won't find it on Time Warner or FIOS or Cablevision, but Al Jazeera's English language television service is laying claim to the viewing loyalty of vast numbers of news-hungry, media-obsessed westerners following the incredible story of courage and revolution in Egypt.

More than any of the social media platforms we've come to worship with the ardent, almost physical hunger of Charlie Sheen expecting a delivery man, the humble satellite signal is rewriting the course of a region in which secular democracy is the dreamy contrast to the wakeful nightmare of dynastic strongmen or intolerant mullahs.

Al Jazeera. Television and a news network sympathetic to the cause of freedom - a polished and professional network endemic to the ethnic, religious, and cultural characteristics of the region, not an import. Remember that ten years ago, the Bush Administration targeted Al Jazeera's journalists as enemies and bombed its bureau in Kabul. Now our State Department follows Al Jazeera as a matter of basic professional pratice, and you can bet it's in heavy rotation on the Situation Room flat screens. And among those who follow international news and politics closely, Al Jazeera has become the channel of first choice; traffic to the English-language stream online has grown by 2,500 percent since last Friday. And Mohamed Nanabhay, the head of online for the English language channel, told the NYT's Brian Stelter that the site’s live stream had been viewed over 4 million times since Friday, and that 1.6 million of those views have come from the United States. “It’s just a testament to the fact that Americans do care about foreign news,” he said.

Of course, Al Jazeera's English-language service is different than its main Arabic-language programming yet we can't help but marvel at the dead-straight reporting from Egypt (before the Mubarak government shut it down) and the fluff-free style. No studio talking heads, no all-star panels, no attempt to make the television experience look like an iPad app, with anchors pressing touch screens and sliding meaningless graphics around the viewing palette. Just waves of in-depth coverage, images backed by reporting. Yes, this is what big news television used to be - a bit unfashionable perhaps among a crowd of digerati obsessed with smart phones and Quora, but what a joy.

And to use the technical journalism term, it's a hell of a story. What began with the slap of a protester's face in a remote part of Tunisia has spread quickly across the North African Arab countries and is leaking into the gulf states - emboldened and knit together by digital communications tools, but mostly powered by a willingness to confront power and by the mass realization that what lies behind (powerless poverty) is far less compelling than a mysterious and dangerous future that may include self-determination.

We shouldn't undersell the digital communications portion of this. Yes, Twitter may be playing almost no role inside Egypt over the past week, and Facebook may be blacked out, but it's important to look back further into the roots of the revolt. And there, you'll find upper middle class Egpytians and Tunisians (and connected people in other parts of the Arab world) organizing in Facebook groups. They're only a part of the story, of course - most of the anger comes from the poor and the middle class living with high prices, low wages, and no political power. Nancy Scola pulled this quote from the op-ed piece by novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin in the Times, and I think it says quite a bit about the current among young Arabic people who yearn to be both free and upwardly mobile:

Clearly, the scent of Tunisia’s 'jasmine revolution' has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?

Facebook groups were a huge part of this; democratic activists have been using the platform for years to gather support and share information. Connected young Egyptians like citizen journalist Noha Atef have been chronicling human rights abuses in Egypt for years, and disseminating the information via Facebook and YouTube. And even though the term "Twitter revolution" has the smell of the discredited about it, short messaging over networks is also a part of this - whether it's texting or Twitter or the on-fly-invention allowing Egyptians to tweet by phone, cobbled together in an unusual collaboration between Twitter and Google. Further, I do think there's something to Jeff Jarvis's suggestion that in the future, connectivity to the network of networks - ordinary people's ability to communicate - should be considered a basic human right. Of course, this raises the spectre of the vast private ownership of most of what we consider "the Internet," and the inherent weakness of private companies interested in profit standing up to governments who demand censorship or monitoring, a topic covered in detail by Evgeny Morozov in his riveting challenge to cyber-utopians (and digital centrism), The Net Delusion.

Yet there is no debating two facts out of Egypt:

1. Mubarak shut down the Internet and digital life there is at a standstill.

2. The revolution not only continued under an Internet black-out, it picked up steam.

Some of it's economic. While cell phone usage has grown wildly in developing countries and places like Egypt, where almost half the population lives in poverty, those phones aren't fancy smart phones with Web access and social media apps; they're cheaper basic models with pre-paid voice service. So while more educated and wealthier elements of Egyptian society may miss their access and suffer from a major Facebook jones, the crowds jamming Tahrir Square are powered by two alternative technologies - their feet, and their voices.

Or as a friend of Parvez Sharma put it from inside Egypt:

Fuck the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it. I don’t need it. No one in Tahrir Square needs it. No one in Suez needs it or in Alex…Go tell Mubarak that the peoples revolution does not [need] his damn internet!

But it will, I think. It will when the job of building a more liberal civil society in Egypt replaces the job of taking down the dictator, when long-term organizing and creating progressive political parties is at hand. The networks of young organizers that relied on Facebook for years will be reactivated and empowered, and new voices will emerge.

That time is not now, however. Strangely enough, this is television's time - and it's clearly the cross-over moment for the news network that Bill O'Reilly bashed as "anti-America" just last week. No matter: the Drudge Report is now sending linky love Al Jazeera's way. And this is good for our society, not just for the Arab world. In embracing Al Jazeera's splendid coverage in large numbers over the past week, we're laying aside a good portion of fear - and we're turning a page to a new chapter in the post-post-9/11 world. Al Jazeera is good for us.

Watching Al Jazeera break through this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Reese Schonfeld 10 years ago at the launch party for his memoir about helping Ted Turner create CNN.  Schonfeld recalled how the CNN founders really saw themselves as revolutionaries - and how they thought of the news network as a kind of social enterprise aimed at changing the nation's relationship to news and information, right down to Turner's  famous banning of the word "foreign." And the conversation recalled how Ted Turner introduced CNN to the world in 1980:

"We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' before we sign off."

That commitment to meaty, unending television coverage lives again, and let's hope it spreads to our sets like democracy activism through the Middle East. With Al Jazeera, the tune may be a little different - maybe they'll be singing Mawtini at the end - but the song remains the same.

January 13 2011


Guns n' Poses

Why aren't we talking about guns? Seven years ago, the Federal law banning assault weapons was allowed to expire, putting the extended magazine in the hands of Jared Loughler in Tucson. Some of the loosest gun laws in the nation were responsible for the weapon that took six lives and changed many more forever. Just after Thanksgiving, Loughler walked into Sportsman's Warehouse and walked out with a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun.

The much-admired Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik - a man who recognized his moment and faced it with candor and competence - called his state's gun laws "the height of insanity." He railed against gun legislation under consideration that he said would let “students and teachers” have guns on college campuses. “I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances wherever they want, and that’s almost where they are,” he said.

Acres of ink has been spilled about the proper use of images of firearms in politics, of armed words. Yet the link between criminally weak gun control and the massacre in Arizona is a helluva lot stronger than the line between a Republican's campaign literature and the gunman's trigger finger.

President Obama said at tonight's memorial rally in Tucson that "what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other." And man, he's right. But we should examine the issue that's literally right there in front of us, locked and loaded.

I don't think we're a gun-free nation. It's not about that. But I think it's about perspective and appropriate scale - about what matters and what doesn't. Digby get to this point:

I'm not against the right to own a gun. I just see no earthly reason why it should be so easy for people to get them or why people should be allowed to carry them anywhere in public that they choose. It just doesn't seem like such a huge sacrifice to have some restrictions on it. Certainly the idea that having everyone armed to the teeth will somehow stop gun violence defies common sense. Unless you think drunk, angry and crazy people who have no judgment don't exist, this is a ridiculous argument on its face.

Yet my instincts are also Robert Stein who tells a story, and puts the right perspective to his experienced shoulder:

During my teens and early twenties, I fired weapons at people, who were often shooting back at me.

It was not a pleasant experience but, after V-E Day in Germany, when most of our food was being sold in British and French black markets, I was persuaded to go deer-hunting not so much for sport as out of hunger. In early morning, sighting a brown hide and preparing to fire, I realized I was about to bag a cow.

That ended my hunting career, but I brought home as a souvenir a pistol I had taken from a German officer. Years later, when my teen-age son found it in a closet, I disassembled the gun and walked a mile in Manhattan dropping parts in trash bins to make sure it would never be put together again.

In the half-century since then, the Second Amendment has been of only academic interest, but a flurry of activity post-Tuscon reawakens the sense of wonder at how bearing arms against targets that don't shoot back has become a sacred right in America.

January 07 2011


Rally, Bloggers, Rally!

Roy Edroso is the Ed Norton of liberal bloggers, stoicly patroling the lowest sewers of hard right hatred on a regular basis, yet emerging with the right blend of sunny, blogging delight. A call has gone up to light the signal fires for Roy, who is - I can testify for having shared a libation or three with the man - a treasure of insight into the modern political condition (baseball too).

The guy's fallen ill and lost his Bohemian love pad, and needs a hit of that substance we call money to get over the hump. Here's James Wolcott:

A restored, recovered Roy Edroso is vital to journalism and sanity, especially now that the House has been taken over an even crazier group of Republican crazies, a confederation of Atlas Shruggers and so a PayPal donation site has been samaritanly set up by a fan and frequent commenter at Alicublog named Jay B since Edroso himself, as TBogg explains, "refuses to ask for help...the big fucking martyr."

Dig in folks. I've made a small contribution and urge you to do the same. And here's a taste of Roy's classic blogging.

Tags: Blogs

December 31 2010


Blogging Still Matters

I was going to get around to a similar post in and about the joyous festivities of the semi-pointless holiday of New Year's, but the estimable Robert Stein beat me to it - and I don't think Bob will mind this particular quotation in full:

Generosity, a fading trait these days, comes back in the holiday season, with the revival of a tradition started by the late Al Weisel, who wrote brilliantly under the nom de plume of Jon Swift and was relentless in promoting the work of new bloggers across the political spectrum.

The reviver is Batocchio, who writes the Vagabond Scholar, where you can find what bloggers (including this one) consider their best posts of the year to comprise a fascinating mosaic of commentary on what we have been living through.

In this time of renewal, it also seems fitting to send best wishes for the new year to Joe Gandelman, who allows me to be part of his community of sanity on The Moderate Voice, a tireless band of resisters to online vitriol and viciousness.

To them all, may generosity make a real comeback in American life and give us less to blog about in the coming months.

Thanks to Batocchio for keeping the spirit - the very generous spirit - of Al Weisel alive (and I share the assessment of Joe Gandelman, another generous soul). May the sharing of links bring us all closer to the common understanding of our shared human struggle in the New Year. [Also, what Lance said.]

Tags: Blogs

December 27 2010


Book of the Year: You Are Not A Gadget

"Think For Yourself" would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with "A Manifesto" and it certainly is all of that - bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society's long march toward a thin, common identity.

Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.

My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva, Change.org, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below - and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.

Yet I've never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @ny against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated "information wants to be free" as a physicist's formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the "freedom" some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it's no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.

Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.

The central tenet of Lanier's manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology - that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what's better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn't your actual self, it was "your best you."

Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders "whether people are becoming like MIDI notes - overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer." Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook "like" button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter - the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages - they're paying six-figures for so-called "promoted" tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

Lanier's point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific "crowd-sourced" activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don't always win. Throughout history, they've often been shouted down by crowds. While it's impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler's seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks - "Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development" - and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier's warnings also seem in tune with the times.

It's not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?

That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman's famous '90s proclamation that when "information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." I'd naturally ask "what does generally useful mean?" and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. "What's to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Lanier's "digital Maoism" may be the intellectual equivalent of crying "fire!" in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier's is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: "The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people - very influential people - believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don't hear those voices though - and I believe those who do are fooling themselves."

You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which "superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis." The remedy is our current actual democracy - "the slower processes of elections and court proceedings" - which are like calming bass waves in Lanier's musical metaphor. They reduce "the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don't cancel one another out." It's dull and it doesn't make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre - Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn't think "Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice." And Lanier didn't win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking "nerd supremacy" to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:

"The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other."

In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier's piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum's Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he "makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations." In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty - which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier's dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that "collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Frankly, it's part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I'm not immune to this) and it's an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and "the state" as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause - and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:

For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet -- America's new "freer, vast, electric world," to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.

That "freer, vast, electric world" still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier's point of tends to get lumped into naysayer's category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that "de-excites." Some keep going, he wrote, while others "become professional debunkers." Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter - but I think that's a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are  Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.

"Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing," writes Lanier. "We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we'll have if we can survive these challenges."

I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn't change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It's the book of the year for 2010.

December 16 2010


Man of the Year: The Unemployed American

Time magazine's ritual exercise in slow-motion trendspotting and well-liquored (we presume) committee mongering has reached its merciful end. Verdict? Facebook visionary Mark Zuckerberg. Which is fine, I guess. Except that Time already honored Zuckerberg's social graph (sort of) with its much-shellacked  "you!" tinfoil cover back in ought-six. There was a lot of angst in one corner of the series of tubes over the failure of Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange to win the nod, despite triumphing in an online poll. But really, if you're going the route of exposing America's foreign policy secrets and failings being the year's biggest story, isn't Pfc. Bradley Manning the choice there, and not his publicist?

No, I think we need to move offline this year and away from the shiny and those "this changes everything!" moments that are intoxicating. I'm as guilty as the rest of the networked faithful preaching the gospel of digital transfiguration, but here's a reset button: the person of the year in this country (and very probably the next and the one after that) is the unemployed American.

After all, if you give the honor a year ago to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a man who never saw the current and ongoing financial crisis until it swept across our shares like a tsunami, you can certainly back those who suffer for his monetary policies. Time itself makes the case for one its finalists:

In early March, there were nearly 16 million Americans out of work, at least 5 million more jobless than at the peak of any of the previous three recessions. What's more, out-of-work were staying that way for longer than any other recession since WWII. In October, the average unemployed worker had been out of a job for more than 8 months. And while the unemployment rate dropped, the broader measure of job market health, the so-called U-6 — which tracks those who are working part-time but would like to work full time, as well as those who had stopped looking for work — continued to climb to a recent 17%. Most economists predict the situation won't improve anytime soon. Many believe the jobless rate, currently at 9.8%, will remain above 8% for another two years.
It's back to the 1970s, but with a less deliberative Senate, a meaner more conservative Republican Party and  no small share of malaise on the Democratic side as well. We're two years in, well past TARP, well past the frist stimulus, and now into renewed tax cuts that will continue to drive a trillion-dollar deficit that the GOP "hawks" pretend to care about. Some hawks. And frankly, some doves as well - two never-ending wars that bleed the national economy, bleed our international reputation, and bleed the soldiers whose oaths demand their attendance. The kids are noticing, at least around my house. Lance Mannion remembers another similar time:

I mean that we were sheltered from what was going on in the country by virtue of our parents being middle class or working class, which in those days, in Upstate New York, where most of the blue collar work was at the many nearby GE plants---most of the white collar and pink collar work was there too---where thanks to the Unions and GE’s manufacturing strength effectively meant middle class.

But we were also sheltered by our parents being responsible grown-ups with the attitudes and codes of parents of that time and that place, some of which were less than ideal, but one of them was the principle that adults did not share their feelings with children.

By then the Recession had hit.  I’m sure there were some kids in school who wondered why suddenly so many of their suppers featured tuna casserole or pancakes and scrambled eggs.  I didn’t.  There were six kids in our house.  I just took it for granted that my mother fed us what she was sure all six of us would eat.  I also knew she didn’t have time to make a big meal for eight every night.  I didn’t figure out until I was in college that my father’s salary was in the process of being effectively halved by inflation.

When one of us asked why we couldn’t go out for ice cream after dinner tonight or why we couldn’t have a toy or a particular item of clothing we just needed to have by this weekend if not right now and we’d have to wait for our birthday or Christmas, we accepted---because we had no choice but to accept it---my mother’s calm and patient reply, “We don’t have the money for it today.”

Chronic unemployment over a decade - the kind that breaks families and discourages a generation - will have a far greater impact on this society than a social networking site or some leaked government documents. Yeah, the unemployed American - man of the momen, man of the decade, man of the year. Cue the mistletoe.

December 13 2010


Denial of Service, Denial of Speech

On a cold morning in February, 1989 the telephone woke me at dawn with the news of a denial of service attack on the newspaper I worked for as deputy editor. Here's how that particular DoS worked, in technical terms for all you geeks out there:

Two men threw a pair of Molotov cocktails through the front windows of The Riverdale Press in the Bronx, gutting the newspaper's editorial offices and shutting down the building for five months.

Those men, like the group that declares it is defending Wikileaks  and its leader Julian Assange, were anonymous. And like the anonymous attackers of Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, they were attempting to silence without consent or recourse the commercial speech of an institution they disagreed strongly with. They believed their cause was a just one, based upon a gross and unlawful insult, as well as their deeply-held beliefs.

In their case, it was the strong conviction that author Salman Rushdie should die for the religious blasphemy in The Satanic Verses, and that a newspaper that defended Rushdie's First Amendment rights in the United States to sell his book in any bookstore in the land must be silenced and shuttered. Who can doubt that these men (never caught) believed their cause was a just one, and that The Riverdale Press deserved to lose its editorial voice using the most expedient technology available (firebombs)?

Who can doubt that the Anonymous hackers and their supporters believe they are the righteous actors in today's battle over Wikileaks and free speech? They are every bit as certain of their cause as the men who blew up a Bronx newspaper. Yet an action that attacks the rights of self expression of others (in this case, commercial entities, like bookstores and credit card companies and newspapers) surely cannot serve, in any creditable way, to defend free speech.

On Saturday, I was privileged to take part in a "flash conference" in New York organized by the Personal Democracy Forum and its founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. The discussion on press freedom, speech, distribution and modern power was far-ranging, respectful and deeply engaging. (Full video of the conference is here). I reitered my position that Wikileaks is anti-democratic and deserving of deep skepticism for its motives and structure; indeed, I was pleased to hear plenty of skepticism from my fellow panelists and the rather vocal audience. I also found myself agreeing that a distributed online outlet for whistleblowers - really a network of outlets - needs to be created and protected. And it needs to be transparent, in both governance and funding.

But I also heard a troubling idea resurfacing amidst the polite discourse: the position that a distributed denial of service attack is a form of accepted civil disobediance, that DDoS is merely a digital sit-in, the moral equivalent of lunch-counter volunteers in the south during civil rights. Nothing gets permanently broken, no long-term harm is done, and a political point is made - and all from the comfort of your keyboard, safely outside the reach of the big powers that be. At least, so the argument goes.

I strongly disagree, for two reasons:

1. Easy anonymity lacks courage and obscures ideas

Sure, it's easy to see how the Amazons and the MasterCards can lose an hour or ten of business and keep right on making money. It's fun and easy to sign up, run the software, and smash the heck out of a few servers for a while - then sit back and watch the fun on Twitter. Look at me, I'm walkin' across the Edmund Pettis bridge (and putting away a few zombies on XBox too).

The point of civil disobedience is the public act; the point of protest is the message. It takes courage to stand up against the powerful, and it takes commitment to speak. The great historic names of civil disobedience carry an emotional impact for a reason. We know about the sit-ins, the marches, and the many years on Robben Island. Those acts carry power because of their public quality. It's not a question of legality. Throughout the world, many forms of speech or public congregation will get you jailed or killed.

In her post defending DDoS as civil disobedience, the author Deanna Zandt asks the question: "how do I digitally throw myself in front of a tank?" My answer is simple: by using your real name in broad digital daylight, and by saying what you think.

 2. You don't stand up for free speech by using a muzzle

Amazon was down in the UK today, ostensibly in revenge for the incarceration of Assange on Swedish sexual assault charges and Amazon's refusal to host WikiLeaks after its release of the State Department cables. That means you couldn't purchase The Satanic Verses for a time - or my book, or any of the books written by the authors who spoke at #pdfleaks Saturday, or A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's hard to make a less-convincing defense of free speech (or damage Wikileaks more by association) than to strike down someone else's speech. While it's fascinating to follow the discussion of legitimacy and DDoS, ultimately I agree with Micah's post on techPresident:

I believe nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon and generally support people who try to practice it. But I am not sure that it is at all wise to go try to defend free speech by suppressing other people's speech, which is what a DDOS attack does to the target. 

Jeff Jarvis, who handled audience participation with skill at the PDF confab, posted a follow-up to the conference that laid out an amended version of his "Bill of Rights in Cyberspace" - there are lots of good arguments to be had there, but I cannot disagree in any way with the first two:

I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak freely.

Cutting that right to connect - and quashing speech - through denial of service smacks of a secretive cyber warfare. (It's the flipside of the unfortunate reliance most of us have on commericial services like Facebook and Twitter, which could shut down out social graphs in a second if they choose to..a topic for another post). Today, Amazon and PayPal - tomorrow the website of the Personal Democracy Forum or Typepad, which hosts this blog. They're commercial entitities too and you might not like them.

"We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity," writes Mark Pesce in his incisive post on "hyperdemocracy" and the new press. And we can root for connectivity to win over secrecy in places like Burma, Iran and North Korea - as well as Wall Street, the State Department, and local government. That secrecy should be banished as well from the movement that supports ironclad free speech and radical transparency. And to me at least, denying Internet speech to anyone is a bad tactic - and even worse ethics.

December 07 2010


Assange v. Obama


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is calling on President Barack Obama to resign. But I've got a better idea. It's time for Assange himself to go.

After all, if he truly believed in the original mission of the controversial site, he'd remove himself from the glare of international attention and let the clear light of day shine brilliantly on the government secrets WikiLeaks has exposed.

But Assange won't go. As he told a recent interviewer, “I’m a combative person. It’s personally deeply satisfying to me.” And it's now clear that his main goal is to discredit - and indeed, bring down - the administration of President Obama. As the sole face - the judge and jury of WikiLeaks - he's clearly operating on the premise of releasing what he considers the most damaging documents to the Administration.

WikiLeaks has certainly done good things during its short existence, and I am not in favor of punishing speech in any way (or, in the parlance of our insane right wing, assassinating Assange). I do not support informal Washington pressure on commercial interests to create a back-door to banning WikiLeaks; shame on Amazon and PayPal. Nor do I think an international manhunt is in order. I'm in favor of fewer government secrets and far more transparency in how government is run.

But I don't believe Assange is the harbinger of a new and better age. And I no longer believe that Wikileaks acts in the interests of societies of goodwill.

This pains me. It puts me squarely at odds with many of the progressive voices I know and respect, including James Wolcott, Al Giordano, Glenn Greenwald and Micah Sifry (who I shall quote in a moment). But there it is. 

At the risk of being labeled a tool of the government or an old media sap (I've been called worse), I don't think WikiLeaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice. While I don't favor U.S. sanctions against Wikileaks (speech is speech even if once-classified), I have abandoned personal support for the organization. I'm also distressed at so much of the American progressive support for Assange against our own democratic institution, imperfect as they may be. I think Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace.

And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic.

Here's how Assange reacted earlier this year to a request from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, worried that WikiLeaks' Afghanistan trove would cost the lives of aid workers in that war-torn land: "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses. If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting its refusal."

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban was reviewing WikiLeaks' release for the names of anyone who dealt with American forces, including international groups working to advance women's rights. Erica Gaston, program officer for the Open Society Institute's Afghanistan-Pakistan regional policy initiative told the Journal: "Our concern was that the Taliban had announced it was going through the data looking for names and that it would begin targeting that. It's a very real threat that they're making. They have demonstrated over and over that if they have the name of someone that has in any way been affiliated with the international community, they will find them, they will kill them in most cases."

Then there's the admittedly longish question from the "former British diplomat" during this week's Q&A with Assange in the Guardian, which essentially boiled down to "why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function?" It was a serious question. Assange's answer:

If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

This is the new hero of so many in the open government movement.


In a scathing post lambasting the Obama Administration for considering action against Wikileaks, Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Micah Sifry quoted Secretary of State Clinton, drawing from her speech earlier this year on Internet freedom:

"...the issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors."

Exactly. The key value being "one global community," with all the responsibilities and human failings that entails. Too many have come to worship at the altar of pure information, and to embrace Assange as some sort of anti-hero.

Accountability matters too. Our republic, flawed though it is and always shall be, is accountable to us. That mechanism may be slow and - at times - seemingly non-existent. But it's there. We elect our officials. We approve our budgets. We determine the national course, the state course, the local course. We speak.

We are only a "hierarchical, top-down, closed fortress organization" - as Sifry called the Federal government - if we give up our constitutional rights, or spend our time paying no attention.

Wikileaks is secretive, non-transparent, and answerable to no one - indeed, Assange seems to argue that status as a virtue. It is not. Who funds this organization? Who runs it? What are its guiding principles? How is it governed? How does it attempt to represent a social good that entitles it to pay no taxes? How does Wikileaks satisfy its accountability to the social commons? Where do we the people, plug in?

One of the founders of WikiLeaks, who now runs cryptome.org, another online depot for leaked documents, New York architect John Young, told Cnet this summer that he thought the organization had lost its original focus. 

I don't want to limit this to Wikileaks, but yes, they're acting like a cult. They're acting like a religion. They're acting like a government. They're acting like a bunch of spies. They're hiding their identity. They don't account for the money. They promise all sorts of good things. They seldom let you know what they're really up to. They have rituals and all sorts of wonderful stuff. So I admire them for their showmanship and their entertainment value. But I certainly would not trust them with information if it had any value, or if it put me at risk or anyone that I cared about at risk.

While arguing eloquently that Wikileaks should not be shut down by government or commercial intervention, Clay Shirky makes an important additional point: "Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to."

If WikiLeaks' supporters on the left didn't believe in representative government, in public engagement, in the role of a central Federal actor in the well-being of a nation - or in the orderly interaction of nations in the pursuit of world comity - I would understand their praise of a rising new leader, their embrace of a new world order based on digital distribution, free of the annoying friction of law and social convention.

But I don't think that's what they believe.


The British writer David Allen Green, who I first encountered through my friendship with Labour MP and government techie Tom Watson, wrote a short consideration of liberalism in the light of WikiLeaks and his view is very close to mine:

...But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.

For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.

However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".

Be that as it may: one must remember that such self-assumed moral authority is conceptually indistinguishable from the vigilante. If transparency is important, then so is accountability.


WikiLeaks remains a powerful but undemocratic and unaccountable entity that shows a general disregard for both the rule of law and the practical need for certain communications and data to be confidential. So, from a liberal perspective, there is a great deal to commend WikiLeaks, but there is also a lot that should cause a liberal to be concerned.

The latest "release" is clearly designed to be a threat to the United States and the Obama Administration: a secret memo listing critical infrastructure facilities around the world compiled by the U.S. As the brilliant government technology reporter Nancy Scola notes in New York magazine this week, Assange is deliberately telling a specific story to maintain interest.

This isn't an open government purist releasing information to the world - it's a narrative, a campaign, an agenda on open display. "For all that high-minded self-seriousness, he and WikiLeaks are now demonstrating a Gawker-like willingness to go for the gut reaction," writes Scola.

And Assange (the solo voice on WikiLeaks) is clearly taking aim at Obama. In a 2006 essay entitled "Conspiracy as Governance," Assange talked about forcing regime change through the mass distribution of a vast cloud of information: "An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself." In other words, he's going for Obama's political Achilles tendons.

Yes, the President's reputation with progressive Democrats is low right now, but I think it's a mistake to side with Assange against the Administration. And I tend to agree with commenter Hunter S. Tingly on Jay Rosen's excellent Public Notebook blog, where a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion is lighting up the wires:

What people don't realize is that the fallout from all of this isn't going to be a more transparent gov't, or a change in foreign policies that are "good" or "just". The fallout from this is that the current administration (sucky, but less sucky than the previous one) is going down. Obama & Clinton probably wont step down (as Assange is calling for), but Obama won't be re-electable. And the replacement isn't going to be something wonderful, the replacement is going to be the Hawks. The replacement is going to be the rightwing extremists that think they have a mandate from god to do _anything_ they need to in order to make the world fit into the four-corners of the box they call "good".

On his Rebooting the News radio show this week,  Rosen talked over Wikileaks and what it means to journalism and government with Dave Winer. It was an interesting back and forth. "I know we're being manipulated," argued Winer. Rosen said that there's "an anarchist element to what Assange is doing" but suggested that perhaps we need more anarchy.

That's a point of view I've got plenty of sympathy for. Hell, we need more radicals. We need an institution like WikiLeaks to reputably and freely publish material provided by whistleblowers - but a WikiLeaks with structure, governance, public participation, and real transparency of its own. Toward the end of the show, Jay broke into song. "Whose side are you on?" he crooned in a creditable folkie tenor.

And I thought, in the battle of Assange v. Obama, that's an easy one. After all, I voted for one of them.

UPDATE: Good additional reads and comments below.

Allison Fine: "Cablegate isn’t whistleblowing, it isn’t righting a wrong, unveiling unethical or immoral behavior. It is the theft of regular communications that makes it nearly impossible for the State Department to function."

Digby: "Right now the only people besides Wikileaks who have access to all the cables are the newspapers they've partnered with."

On Facebook, the estimable Dennis Perrin (one of my favorite bloggers) says I'm overly soft on Dems. Maybe so.

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